Skin and ink

Once upon a time, I wrote (in this blog, I’m sure – but I can’t find it), that tattoos are like marriages: you’re bound for the rest of your life, and if you do decide it’s not for you, and you want to remove it, the process is protracted and painful, and you never get rid of it completely. So you need to be very, very certain that the tattoo you want today, is going to be the tattoo you want in sixty years time. If you have any doubts that you may one day hate it: then it is not for you. The ink is going to be with you, and under your skin for a long time to come.

Tattoos are also a bit of a cultural quirk. Early last year, in one of the departure lounges at Wellington Airport, I sat next to a woman with a beautiful coloured Aztec sun on her arm – in the same place I have my endless knot – and we smiled knowingly at each other before she continued her reading and I, my knitting. For some reason, we both ended up bemused by a youngish lass – barely out of her teens – in daisy dukes and a crop top rush towards the gate. She had a large and garish piece of inkwork all the way down her thigh, and cartoon-like cats on her arm. The pieces she had weren’t in places that would age well, and looked like they could smudge (as it were) after a few years. They were “pop” pieces, for want of a better term: having ink for the sake of having ink. The woman next to me watched this lass’ whirlwind through the lounge before sighing and returning to her book. “That poor girl. She didn’t really think those tattoos through, did she?” the question came to me with an air of pity about it. I agreed, seeing as I was thinking the same thing.

I got my first tattoo when they were still considered taboo. And it’s rapidly become more mainstream ever since. The woman and I discussed the consideration and importance of design, placement, artist selection, and meaning behind any piece that you may want permanently needled to your skin. You are displaying somebody’s artwork after all. I found it refreshing to have such a discussion with somebody else who approaches this body adornment with the same attitude I do. And we lamented the lack of respect tattoos receive today.

No, they are not for whores and sailors (even though that may still be the attitude of many from more conservative countries). And while some may just look trashy, others out there are tattoos that tell the story of a person’s life. You see this in many of the stunning Māori and Pacific Island tattoos and moko. You see it in some Native American cultures, and in Africa. Yes, sometimes it can be a brand, or sometimes an identifying bond: just looked at the armed forces the world over. Or athletes that represented their country at the Olympics or other such international events. There are tattoos that are badges of honour. Others are yardsticks or memory posts.

I got my fifth tattoo this morning (marriage #5 – they all cohabit quietly, so this is fine). This was my 30th birthday/Camino tattoo. I have one for my 18th, one for my 21st, and one for my 30th. These aren’t just signposts on the road. There’s far more to them than just that. They are snapshots of who I am and what I have done, and carry with them the recollections of each period in time. Tattoos 2 and 4 are slightly more difficult to explain, but are portraits of a state of mind, and in the case of 4 – in emblem and placement – a momento mori (funnily enough, I will forever associate the very basic explanation of said symbol with a line from this song.They said it best, after all.)

Number 5 has been in the works for about as long as planning the Camino was. It was time for a new tattoo, and one with Significance. The shell, of course, had to be there. But was it just going to be the shell? The words came on a walk, of course, and were cemented by James’ remark that he had a new respect for The Lord of the Rings after a mere 5 day traipse through north-western Spain. And so I had it. One of my favourite pieces of verse from LOTR, and it tied in beautifully:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not touched by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
(FOTR I.x.167)

There are many more elements in the story behind the why’s and the how’s and the places and the images of each of my pieces. But they are my bookmarks. They all age with me and show me how far I’ve come. And I love each and every one of them.

And my newest addition… is just perfect too.

Tattoo #5 in Elvish text
“Not all those who wander are lost”


  1. It’s perfect. I got my tattoos when I was 47 (and still people questioned my choice to permenantly mark my body). I chose the placement carefully with sagging skin in mind. The images are just flowers that appealed to me. They are more of a decoration than a bookmark. 8 years later, I still love them and can understand why people have multiple tattoos. It takes great strength of will not to run out and get more. However, I am honoring the wishes of my husband (of nearly 32 years) that I leave the rest of my skin alone.

  2. so symbolic! the placement, the words. i love it. i hope it always brings happy memories and keeps you moving forward xx

Comments are closed.